For firefighters working an overnight shift, it’s a jarring experience – and one with potential health hazards – to be wakened for an emergency call.
“When that alarm goes off at 3 a.m., you wake up and jump a foot into the air,” said Flossmoor Assistant Fire Chief Keith Damm.
Most area firefighters work 24-hour shifts and sleep at the station during the nighttime and early morning hours. And they are awakened by loud alarms when fire or ambulance calls are reported.
Thanks to a federal grant, new automated alarm systems are likely to be installed this year at firehouses in Homewood, Flossmoor and seven other south suburban communities.
Damm said the alarm systems, to be provided by US Digital Designs, will wake up firefighters with a softer tone and will include updated visual and vocal cues that are faster and more comprehensive than what is currently in place at fire stations.
Nearly all the new equipment will be covered by a Federal Emergency Management Administration grant. Damm said the total cost of the alarm systems is $527,438 and FEMA is picking up all but $47,949, which will be split between the nine communities.
Besides Homewood and Flossmoor, the other communities are Glenwood, Hazel Crest, Matteson, Park Forest, Riverdale, South Holland and Thornton.
Former Flossmoor Fire Chief Chris Sewell, who retired in January, wrote the grant proposal and submitted it to FEMA in October 2018. The grant was awarded nine months later and area fire chiefs, officers and firefighters were asked for their input on how to best improve station alarm systems. The Flossmoor Department is the lead agency in the administration of the grant.
Damm said the grant proposal targeted the need for improved alert systems. There was a consensus among the fire chiefs that US Digital Design could provide the best system for their firehouses.
“The chiefs all said, ‘Let’s do this,’” Damm said.
After that, representatives from the company visited all the firehouses to get a better idea of the individual needs at each station.
All the communities must still approve the conditions of the grant, Damm said. It’s likely that Flossmoor’s village board will be asked to approve the grant at its March 2 meeting.
Under the new system, dispatchers will be able to send alerts simultaneously to one or more fire stations in less than a second, which will help to reduce or eliminate time that dispatchers are on hold.
Pre-alerts will be sent to firefighters’ mobile devices seconds before the general alerts come into the station – that is also designed to reduce the impact of the traditional fire call. Illuminated speakers will be in place in the station bunk room and elsewhere in the firehouse. Alerts will be accompanied by message signs giving the location of the call and details on the emergency will be provided vocally by a computerized voice.
For firefighters, the system is designed to reduce cardiac stress, anxiety, optical shock and sleep deprivation once the new tones and sensory cues are in place.
Improved alert systems will make a big difference in the well-being of firefighters, Damm said.
“Imagine what it’s like to be woken up by a loud alarm,” he said. “When that bell goes off, your heart beat immediately goes up to 180 (beats per minute).”
Nationwide studies have shown for years that stress from fire station alerts leads to heart attacks and strokes, he said.
“This ramped-up system will be better all-around for firefighters,” Damm said. “But the middle of the night, I think, is when they will feel it the most.”